Well close enough. Witton Gilbert in fact, but Langley Park is a better paraphrase of Frank Zappa’s lyric, and close enough (as the expression has it) for jazz.
We find ourselves in Summer 1979, and a remarkable discovery courtesy of John Birch and Tony Livesey: an original recording of the original Prefab Sprout lineup – Mick Salmon, Paddy and Martin – playing a selection of songs in the legendary Witton Gilbert Garage.
John Birch explains:
Once in a while older recordings of the band surface that pre-date Prefab Sprout’s signing to Kitchenware Management and CBS Records. During my research I came across one such recording, made during rehearsals at the McAloon garage in Witton Gilbert, County Durham.
Recorded in the summer of 1979, most of the songs here (with the exception of ‘Joshua and the Fried Bread’, written early in 1978, and ‘Igor Stravinski’, here in development) were written in 1977.
The song that is new to most fans’ ears is ‘Igor Stravinski’. Kane Gang supremo and producer of the first Prefab Sprout album ‘Swoon’, David Brewis said of the song:
“It’s about a relationship. A bright uptempo 4/4 with lots of guitar motifs and figures.
She said, ‘You forget you’re not Igor Stravinski: you’re not what you thinkski.’
Ended with an instrumental workout. A staple at the Brewer’s Arms in 1980.”
Paddy was interviewed in 2009 via email for the AV Club, and unusually went into quite a lot of detail about the early years of Prefab Sprout, describing this period of rehearsing and developing:
Although we only started releasing records in the ’80s, our tastes and style were formed much earlier. I started to write songs in ’71, aged 14. By ’72, the idea of having a band was in place. I started to play with my brother Martin, and our best friend Michael Salmon round about then. You’ll probably think I’m joking, but really, we were a ’70s band. Unfortunately, we spent so long playing for our own amusement, building up a pretty baroque repertoire, that we didn’t get round to properly capturing our early style on tape, which is a shame. It was very different from our eventual “career” recordings. Much more energetic, freeform and electric. We evolved into something quite different when we stopped being a three-piece, after “Lions In My Own Garden.” Something was gained, and a lot was lost.
What else did we like? Well, we’d always been intrigued by modern classical music. I wrote to Stockhausen when I was 17, and he sent me an autographed score which I still treasure. But we liked T. Rex too. We just don’t happen to sound too much like Stockhausen or Bolan. And we loved Igor Stravinsky. Here was classical music that didn’t sound quaint. The coda to “The Firebird Suite”? I thought that we might sound like that. Why? I don’t know. There was just an attitude, or a colour in the music that I wanted to get close to. I thought I heard the same thing in “Marquee Moon,” by Television. (Is Tom Verlaine a fan of Igor?)
Do you want more on this subject? I’m much happier talking about someone else’s music than my own. One of our earliest songs was actually called “Igor Stravinsky.” That’s how keen we were on him. We loved “The Rite Of Spring” and “Petrushka.” I realize that it sounds presumptuous and ludicrous, but the experience of hearing these records coloured my own writing enormously. You might not hear it, you may even think I’m teasing you. But straight from the heart, it was nourishing.
By the way, none of us were highly skilled musos. (I’m talking about our original lineup.) My brother Martin has always been quick to learn stuff, but I can only do things the way I’ve written them. I’m slow to relearn an arrangement. And at that time, I didn’t know anything about music theory. I couldn’t read a note, and even as late as the ’90s, I was never sure what an actual bar of music might be. But I loved to make up chord shapes on the guitar. When people detect a jazz influence, I know what they are getting at, but the simple truth is, I liked Stravinsky, and viewed the fretboard as a shape-making device. If you think like that, you will automatically come up with complex chords that are associated with jazz. Back then, I didn’t really know any jazz. I seem to remember a Charlie Parker album kicking around, but it would have been like nuclear physics to a maths novice. Too fast, too blurry. Igor was slow enough for us to hang on his coat-tails. These days? Yes, I’m a fan of Miles Davis, Gil Evans, Sun Ra, and Louis Armstrong.
So… in the beginning, we were an extremely eccentric mix of total formal ignorance and wide-eyed curiosity. But I should emphasize that this was when we started out, which is my favourite Prefab Sprout period.
With the scene neatly set, there is just room for a couple of Sproutological notes before we hear the music itself. Many fans will be familiar with the curved roof of the Witton Gilbert garage: several pictures of this have been published online, and the story that it had been part of a WW1 Hangar is also fairly well known. However the rehearsals themselves took place in a building just across the road that was a sort of workshop for repairs. The photo accompanying the article is of this building in the early 1990s when its usage had changed; it has now been demolished, along with the rest of the garage and the McAloon Bungalow which had been bought by an overseas businessman and allowed to fall into disrepair.
Apart from Igor Stravinsky, there’s a good selection of early songs. The full early “Golden Calf”, with frustratingly inaudible additional lyrics, later resurrected for “Langley”. “Walk On”, which Paddy had also been playing with Avalon, and which was Wendy’s favourite song when she was a fan and not in the band. “Faron Young”, raucous and rocking, and “Joshua and the Fried Bread”, better experienced in the McGurk Tapes version, but nice to have.
“Igor Stravinsky” (or Stravinski, you pays your money and you takes your choice on that) is for my money the best of the lot. Yes, it’s a novelty lyric, but it’s an extremely catchy and tuneful song that comes beautifully into focus after two or three listens, leaving you with just a hint of minor key melancholy. Such a shame this wasn’t in the basket of early songs scooped up as B Sides. I suspect we have Yes to thank for Paddy’s interest in Stravinsky: the Firebird Suite was famously used by the prog behemoths to open gigs.